After polygamy was outlawed many Mormon men, unwilling to abandon their wives and children as ordered, fled to Mexico. Nine colonies were eventually settled. (Two remain today.) When the Mexican Revolution began, their peaceful lives were disrupted. Officially, they did not take sides, but they soon found both sides expected them to provide aid. The demands from the warring factions increased, placing extreme hardship on the Mormons. Violence, and even murders occurred. The violence was the result of their nationality, not their religion. The Mormons held a joyful celebration on the 24th of July, celebrating the Mormon arrival in Utah in pioneer days, but four days later, it was decided the women and children needed to return to the United States. Boys sixteen and older stayed with the men, who eventually followed by horseback. They were given less than an hour to pack one trunk and a roll of bedding for each family and to leave for the train station. There were so many refugees, the railway had to attach boxcars and then cattle cars to accommodate them. The journey was very difficult. However, most anticipated returning home in a few weeks, although in the end, few ever returned.
The trains began delivering refugees to El Paso, Texas. Faced with a sudden influx of refugees, most of whom had little or no money and did not bring items for cooking or basic survival, the city went to work. Local citizens drove to the train station to help transport the refugees to a camp, refusing to take payment. A temporary tent city in a lumberyard was hastily erected for the first 2500 refugees. People donated food and water to the Mormons.
The corral had dust a foot deep, flies, and few sanitary facilities, creating a strong odor. Each family was given a small stall and they hung blankets to create a little privacy for sleep. However, they found city residents peeking in through the blankets at them. Some felt like circus animals as the media photographed them and people rushed in to look at them. The Church-owned newspaper, however, noted that while some were sight-seers, many others were there trying to find ways to help.
The city installed water and sewage. The church sent in food, as did non-Mormon volunteers. Each building had a campfire and women took turns creating stews from the donated meat and potatoes for their entire building. Other volunteers sent in clothing and cooking utensils. The Chamber of Commerce invited a Mormon to describe the situation in Mexico and then organized themselves to contribute to the charitable needs of the people.
The federal government and the military, which had a base there, also stepped in to help. The army built a shower, which fascinated the children, none of whom had ever seen a shower. The government and Army also provided shelter and provisions. President Taft authorized one hundred thousand dollars to be used for aid, which was used to purchase food and tents.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the correct name for the church the Mormons belonged to, set up a relief organization in the city. While today, the Church would be able to provide for this situation alone, the extensive welfare program was still in the future, and so church leaders, besides bringing in church funds and member donations, also coordinated and arranged for government assistance.
When refugees were ready to move on, the railroads offered them a discounted rate of 1 cent per mile to wherever they needed to go to rejoin family still in the United States. Many left for Arizona and Utah. Some, touched by the kindness of the city, found permanent housing right there in El Paso, leading to the creation of the first Mormon congregations there.
In 2012, the Church held a celebration honoring the city of El Paso for its kindness one hundred years ago. To a people who had so recently been persecuted everywhere in the United States, such kindness had never been forgotten.
Fred E. Woods, Finding Refuge in El Paso, Meridian Magazine, October 15, 2012
Mormon Exodus From Mexico, History of Mormonism
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.